The film Gravity is having an especially strong run at the box office, and it seems to be having an especially powerful impact on those who have seen it. It’s certainly a beautiful movie, visually, and an unusual one, as far as big-budget Hollywood attractions go. For anyone who thinks a lot about technology, as I do, the film has some interesting, though somewhat ambiguous, messages.
Be forewarned: What follows is all spoiler.
Technology gone wrong plays a central role in Gravity. The film also resonates with a theme that’s central to the technological project: the drive to open new frontiers. This is not to say that either of those subjects is the principal concern of Gravity’s director and co-writer, Alfonso Cuarón. His interests lie elsewhere, as I’ll explain. Still, when you make a saga about human beings in space, questions of technology and frontiers are hard to avoid. (more…)
I remember hearing somewhere that one of the most important things you can teach a child is to delay gratification.
Give a five-year-old a choice between a cookie on the table in front of him right now and two cookies 15 minutes from now, and chances are he’ll take the one cookie right now. Maturity is about learning to live within your means. You want something nice, you save up for it. You resist blowing your entire paycheck on bling so that when the first of the month comes you have enough money to cover the rent.
It’s obvious that the consumer economy wants us to ignore these basic principles. (more…)
An early strategy for making new technology feel familiar
I was thinking this morning about two subjects that don’t usually go together, skeuomorphs and morality.
A skeuomorph is a design element applied to a product that looks as if it’s functional but really isn’t. Its real purpose is to evoke a sense of familiarity and comfort. The literary critic N. Katherine Hayles cites as an example the dashboard of her Toyota Camry, which is made of synthetic plastic molded to look as if it’s stitched fabric.
Software designers use lots of skeuomorphs for their user interfaces; examples include the “pages” that seem to “turn” in e-readers and word processing programs. Hayles calls skeuomorphs “threshold devices.” They “stitch together past and future,” she says, “reassuring us that even as some things change, others persist.” (more…)
Given that we’re not in the habit of thinking too much where our technological passions might lead us, I’ve been heartened over the past year to see an unusual willingness to confront the potentially devastating impact of the robotics revolution on human employment.
It was a question that was hard to avoid, given the global recession and the widening gap between rich and poor. It’s obvious that rapid advances in automation are offering employers ever-increasing opportunities to drive up productivity and profits while keeping ever-fewer employees on the payroll. It’s obvious as well that those opportunities will continue to increase in the future. (more…)
Brad Pitt’s latest movie, which opens today, is being described as an attack on capitalism, at least as it’s currently practiced in America.
When “Killing Them Softly” premiered at Cannes last spring, an article in the Los Angeles Times called it a “post-Occupy” film and “what the documentary ‘Inside Job’ might look like if it was a fictional feature.”
“Inside Job,” you may recall, is director Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning examination of how Wall Street speculation and duplicity led to our current economic crisis. The action in “Killing Them Softly” takes place during the stock and housing market crashes that got the current crisis rolling; visible in the background are clips of presidential candidates Obama and McCain making promises (still unfulfilled) of economic reform. Director Andrew Dominik’s underlying theme, according to the Times, “is that U.S. capitalism is deeply flawed, and that government, whether Democrat or Republican, has let down its people.” (more…)
As many have noted, technology – specifically, email accounts – played a central role in the ongoing scandal involving the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus. “Harassing” emails sent to socialite Jill Kelley led to the FBI’s discovery of emails that revealed Petraeus’ affair with Paula Broadwell; other emails led to the discovery of questionable exchanges between Kelly and another top-ranking official, General John R. Allen; subsequent searches found classified documents on the hard drives of individuals who weren’t authorized to have them.
With the indispensible assistance of the media, reverberations have been ricocheting furiously up and down the corridors of power and gossip from Washington and Langley to Florida, Afghanistan, and Libya since the scandal broke last Friday. It’s not the first time these elements have combined to produce a sensation, but it’s the messiest we’ve seen lately. (more…)
I’m an admirer of the writer Ellen Ullman, the software engineer turned novelist. Her 1997 memoir, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, is a wonderfully perceptive reflection on her years as a professional programmer.
Ullman recently wrote a commentary for the New York Times on the computerized trading debacle triggered last month by the brokerage firm Knight Capital. In it she reaffirmed a crucial point she’d made in Close to the Machine, a point I find myself coming back to repeatedly in this space. To wit: If you think we’re in control of our technologies, think again. (more…)